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Body Image

How Social Media Distorts Our Body Image

From magazines to Instagram: Unraveling the influence of media on mental health.

Key points

  • A 1996 study unveiled the harmful effects of media on body image, but regulations are still lacking.
  • Since 2010, surging social media exposed adolescents to unrealistic body ideals, fueling mental health issues.
  • Eating disorder influencers glorify unhealthy habits, amassing followers and worsening the issue.
  • Social media profits from teen distress; lawsuits expose their role in fueling eating disorders and suicides.

It’s the year 2023, and Dr. Nicole Hawkins, the CEO of the Center for Change, a respected eating disorder facility, faces a new and concerning challenge: an extensive waitlist of patients in need of tube feeding. The severity of eating disorders has escalated, and Dr. Hawkins attributes a significant portion of this crisis to social media.

But let’s rewind a bit and delve into the backstory.

The detrimental impact of magazine covers on females’ mental health

In 1996, Dr. Hawkins, then a Ph.D. student, embarked on a groundbreaking study examining the impact of magazine covers and advertisements on female body image (Hawkins et al., 2004). Her methodology was straightforward: She exposed females with and without eating disorders to 30 magazine images featuring sexualized and idealized female models. After just 30 minutes of exposure, all participants, especially those with eating disorders, were profoundly and negatively triggered in response to these images.

While it may seem unsurprising in hindsight, these results were nothing short of revolutionary at the time. Dr. Hawkins recalls her Ph.D. committee’s reaction, stating they “would never have approved this study had they known the extent of its negative effects.” In essence, Dr. Hawkins was one of the pioneers in revealing the detrimental mental health consequences of promoting sexualized and idealized female bodies. She firmly believes that “such images should have been banned.”

However, as so often happens with important scientific results, they were overlooked by the politicians who had the power to enact them.

The concurrent rise of social media and mental illnesses among youth

During the 1990s, social media was in its infancy, with advertising primarily channeled through magazines, television, fashion runways, and brick-and-mortar stores. Fast-forward to around 2010, and everything changed. As of 2021 estimates, people now encounter a staggering 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements daily. A substantial, yet unquantified, portion of these advertisements features white, thin, and sexualized human models.

Including attractive human models in ads has long been a marketing practice, believed to capture attention, enhance memorability, and boost sales (though the empirical evidence supporting this notion remains elusive). However, what may be savvy for businesses is, in this case, detrimental to human well-being. The Surgeon General recently reported that one in three adolescents is addicted to social media. Data from the Center for Change reveals that eating disorder patients spend an average of 10-12 hours daily on social media. While it’s readily apparent that spending such excessive time glued to screens is unhealthy, the real issue lies in the content saturating social media platforms.

Eating disorder influencers and the glorification of the skinny body

In the past, eating disorder facilities banned the use of phones, but the pandemic prompted a shift as phones became a lifeline for connecting with loved ones who could no longer visit. However, at the Center for Change, it soon became apparent that these phones were not primarily used for maintaining family ties; rather, they served as a gateway to social media. Patients began posting pictures of their emaciated bodies, documenting their tube feedings, and sharing their emotional struggles related to eating. They inadvertently glamorized eating disorders, idolizing dangerously thin bodies and celebrating resistance to nourishment. Some of these “eating disorder influencers” now boast over 10 million followers.

Dr. Hawkins and numerous other healthcare professionals pinpoint social media as the leading catalyst for aggravated mental illness among teens and adolescents. Dr. Hawkins illustrates the extent of the issue, noting that patients now seek plastic surgery to conform to the distorted ideals perpetuated by their social media avatars. Young individuals are idealizing an excessively slender physique and embracing the unrealistic alterations made possible by the digital tools prevalent on social media platforms.

Whereas, in the past, individuals resorted to surgical procedures to alter their physical selves, the digital age now empowers them to reshape their appearance through filters and other visual tricks instantaneously. This practice gained momentum during the pandemic, fostering a deceptive sense of heightened self-esteem. However, as young people grapple with the anxiety of returning to face-to-face interactions—where genuine appearance cannot be deceived—plastic surgeons emerge as the apparent solution.

When teen mental illness becomes profitable

In 2021, the world finally confirmed a widely held belief: Social media platforms like Meta (formerly Facebook) and Instagram employ algorithms strategically designed to entice young users, fostering a potentially addictive attachment to their platforms. Frances Haugen, a former Meta product manager, released a trove of internal documents, one of which demonstrated a direct link between Instagram usage and suicidal thoughts in 13 percent of UK teen girls and 6 percent of American teens. Meta was making money on the mental illness of teen girls.

When it comes to eating disorders, “liking” posts related to weight loss often snowballs into a relentless stream of content from individuals actively promoting these disorders. Unsurprisingly, research published in 2017 found that Instagram usage is strongly correlated with an escalation in eating disorder symptoms (Turner et al., 2017).

Our mental health and the onset and maintenance of a mental illness have become a profitable business. There are several lawsuits against Meta’s practices, including from families whose children were driven into eating disorders and suicides due to social media. Yet, as these legal battles unfold, the glorification of unattainable and unrealistically thin and manipulated bodies continues unchecked.

Being lonely in the midst of 10 million followers

Mental illness is a lonely affair. Isolation can both trigger and result from mental health challenges. Eating disorders are particularly notorious for driving people into self-imposed isolation, causing them to gradually sever ties with friends and social connections as their condition deepens. Paradoxically, while social media could theoretically serve as a means to discover new friendships and support networks, it frequently steers people further down the path of their affliction, all while an audience of millions silently observes their struggles.


Hawkins N, Richards PS, Granley HM, Stein DM. The impact of exposure to the thin-ideal media image on women. Eat Disord. 2004 Spring;12(1):35-50. doi: 10.1080/10640260490267751. PMID: 16864303.

Turner PG, Lefevre CE. Instagram use is linked to increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa. Eat Weight Disord. 2017 Jun;22(2):277-284. doi: 10.1007/s40519-017-0364-2. Epub 2017 Mar 1. PMID: 28251592; PMCID: PMC5440477.

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